The Arab League has taken an uncharacteristic turn in its activities over the past ten months. While the Arab Spring is takings its toll on states in the region, it appears that the most important regional organisation in North Africa and the Middle East, the Arab League, is catching some of the euphoria of change. This is unexpected, particularly from an organisation dominated by undemocratic states whose main purpose was seen by many to simply attack Israeli policies and be an ineffectual talking shop for support of the Palestinian cause. Its decision to support NATO airstrikes against Libya in conjunction with the UN was surprising enough however its recent activities with regard to Syria is frankly, astonishing. The extent of this change is evidenced by Syrian claims that the Arab League are acting on the basis of some Zionist plot.

The League of Arab States, as it is officially called, was established in 1945 by six original members Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Currently it has 22 members, including Palestine, located across the Middle East and North Africa. The Charter sets out the aims of the organisation which is mainly centred on co-operation and economic relations and more critically safeguard the independence and sovereignty of its members. The first Arab League summit was not held until 1964.  Under Article III, decision-making is based upon 1 member 1 vote. Under Article V, the resort to force to resolve conflicts between two member states is prohibited:

Any resort to force in order to resolve disputes between two or more member-states of the League is prohibited. If there should arise among them a difference which does not concern a state’s independence, sovereignty, or territorial integrity, and if the parties to the dispute have recourse to the Council for the settlement of this difference, the decision of the Council shall then be enforceable and obligatory.

Prior to the Arab Spring, the Arab League had only once before suspended a member state, Egypt. It had never supported  or condoned the use of force against a member of the organisation and certainly has not condemned human rights violations.  It has, on previous occasions authorised the use of Arab peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and it condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, though not all members voted in favour of the resolution. With regard to Libya, it first suspended it from meetings in February following the killing of hundreds by Gaddafi’s forces, and ultimately supported UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising the use of force however, the League were equivocal once the NATO airstrikes began. Two League members, Qatar and The United Arab Emirates, joined NATO in the airstrikes.  Nonetheless, it is in dealing with Syria that the League has been unusual vocal and active.

The role of the League in Syria is particularly important, as the chances of international action, such as the that in Libya, is unlikely. Particularly as both Russia and China, continue to block any further moves against Syria at the UN. Other regional blokes, such as the EU, have been involved, however its the League’s decision to tackle one of its member head on, that is remarkable. In August as protests continued in Syria, and  regional powers such as Saudi Arabia began to withdraw their ambassadors and the League began to become very active. At the beginning of November, as Syria once again failed to comply with the League’s plan for a resolution of the dispute, the League began to discuss tougher options and decided to impose further sanctions on Syria. Another League deadline passed today with the prospect of even further sanctions being imposed by the League. It is also possible that the League will send in observers into Syria.

There are obviously other issues, other than the treatment of Syrian people by the their Government, at work. Syria’s links to Iran, for instance, is problematic for states such as Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, this turn of events, is remarkable. Unlike, other regional bodies such as the EU or NATO, which are certainly the exception rather than the rule, regional bodies such as the League, have rarely, if ever, been effectual in protecting the human rights of individuals or groups. While the situation in Syria is ongoing and, as such, the actual impact of the League’s actions cannot, as yet, be judged, arguably it is a very positive move on the League’s part and suggests that the Arab Spring is have a broader impact beyond the state structure.

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Written by Aoife O’Donoghue

Aoife O’Donoghue is a lecturer at Durham Law School having formerly held a post at NUI, Galway. Aoife’s PhD was at the University of Groningen. She specialises in international law specifically the law of international institutions and global governance. You can contact her at aoife.o’donoghue[at]durham.ac.uk or (+44) 0191 334281